San Francisco State University

San Francisco Police Watchdog Group Says Public Defender Wrongly Arrested

“I’m concerned and discouraged,” former deputy public defender Jaimi Tillotson

A San Francisco police sergeant who arrested a former deputy public defender in the Hall of Justice, which was caught on video, was found to have wrongly arrested her.

But that finding, released by the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office on Friday, actually ended up further frustrating Jami Tillotson, who was placed into handcuffs on Jan. 27, 2015 as she was talking to a client in the halls of the San Francisco courthouse. Her colleague took video of the bizarre arrest, and by Friday, the YouTube clip had been viewed more than 1.5 million times.

“I’m concerned and discouraged,” said Tillotson, who has since left the public defender’s office for private practice. “There was a huge delay in getting a response, and the police department didn’t offer any more training or take him off the street.”

San Francisco’s police watchdog agency, the Office of Citizen Complaints, issued their findings about two “unwarranted actions” by Sgt. Brian Stansbury in December, about a year after she filed a complaint. The watchdog group also noted several departmental policy and training failures. Several other allegations relating to the incident were either not sustained, found to be proper conduct, or there was no finding

But to this date, Tillotson said she has no idea whether Stansbury had been disciplined. She has heard that he went right back to the streets. San Francisco police officer Albie Esparza said "this is a personnel matter," and referred all questions to the Office of Citizen Complaints.

Inez Vargas Frenkel, senior staff attorney of the watchdog group, said she was prohibited by law to talk about specifics. Regarding the seemingly  long timeframe, she said simply: "Many cases have unique challenges."

Tillotson was arrested for allegedly obstructing police after she questioned why officers were photographing her client and another man outside a courtroom at the San Francisco Hall of Justice. She was led to the police station and handcuffed to a bench for an hour before being released. The district attorney declined to file charges.

Since then, Tillotson also decided to sue San Francisco and the police department alleging constitutional violation of rights. The high-profile Tony Serra law firm is handling the case.

Public Defender Jeff Adachi said that Tillotson’s arrest is just one in a string of national incidents where public defenders faced disrespect and in some incidents, violence.

Last June, a Florida judge challenged and engaged in a physical fight with a veteran public defender after the public defender refused to waive his client’s right to a speedy trial. Also last year, a Mississippi judge permanently banned a public defender from his courtroom for her zealous representation and announced he would reassign all of her cases to private attorneys against the clients’ wishes and in violation of their 6th Amendment right to counsel.

This week, a district attorney investigator in Orange County beat a defense attorney bloody after the defense attorney scored a court victory against the district attorney’s office in the ongoing jailhouse snitch scandal.

“Public defenders represent people with little money and even less power,” Adachi said. “It is contempt for the poor that results in routine disrespect of public defenders. In the face of this contempt, Jami never wavered in her duty to her client. That’s because the right to counsel is a shield to protect ordinary citizens from intimidation.”

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